Why Theory Construction Must Include Ontological Commitment

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Submission Summary
Current approaches to resolving psychology’s theoretical problems converge in their call for the further formalization of psychological theory (e.g., Fried, 2020; Van Rooij & Baggio, 2021; Borsboom et al., 2021; Robinaugh et al., 2021; Guest & Martin, 2021). In contrast, we have argued that psychology’s theoretical problems are in large part caused by issues independent from whether theories are represented verbally, formally or mathematically (e.g., Eronen & Bringmann, 2021; Oude Maatman, 2021). In this talk, we focus on the most fundamental of these issues, which has received little attention in the debate so far: that psychological theory generally is ontologically unspecific. More specifically, it often remains unclear how the constructs and processes described in psychological theories could be realized in the world, or even what the referents of key theoretical concepts are – despite their being treated as real causes. Concepts and constructs are often defined either operationally (e.g., intelligence; ego depletion; Lurquin & Miyake, 2017), functionally (e.g., creativity; Runco & Jaeger, 2012; implicit attitudes; Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Greenwald & Lai, 2020) or by simply adopting their lexical, folk psychological definition (e.g., in emotion research; Fiske, 2020). Furthermore, psychological theorizing is often completely independent from any foundational theory of the nature of human cognition or approach to the mind-body problem, instead consisting of positing folk-psychologically intuitive causal relationships and mechanisms with few further constraints (see also Danziger, 1997). It thus often remains unclear what the exact ontological commitments of psychological theories are in terms of what particular entities or processes they posit to exist, how hypothesized causal relationships among them are assumed to be realized, or how they fit into a scientific picture of human cognition as a whole. In our talk, we show that this lack of ontological commitment is highly problematic for scientific practice in psychology (cf. Hochstein, 2019). Without a clear ontology, it becomes impossible to delimit the set of causally relevant variables for any to be explained process or phenomenon. Yet, without such delimitation one cannot determine under which conditions an effect or phenomenon should occur or not, which heavily complicates the design of experiments, the interpretation of (non-)replications, and any claims about the generalizability of experimentally identified effects (e.g., Cartwright, 2009). Such delimitation is also necessary to create theory-derived models for prediction or causal inference; if relevant causes are not included, these after all would fail. Without a clear ontology and well-delineated referents for concepts, one also cannot argue or determine whether psychological interventions only affect the intended concept (i.e., the problem of fat-handedness; Eronen, 2020) or that conceptually similar experiments or measurement techniques indeed tap into the same phenomenon or construct. Despite its potential benefits, formalization cannot resolve these issues; the only solution lies in conceptual work, in the form of creating or adopting an ontology. Given the broad scope of the aforementioned problems, we conclude that theory construction (method) in psychology needs to engage with ontology and ontological commitments if psychological science is to advance.
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Radboud University Nijmegen
University of Groningen

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